We had an exciting morning in Herbarium last Tuesday. It began when Andrea Winn, the Curator of Community Exhibitions, called to see if we could supply some specimens to put in a ‘Museum Comes To You’ box linked to the Manchester Gallery. Andrea had already collected some cotton samples but now wanted either some Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) or a specimen collected by one of our working class, Victorian botanists. I decided to see if I could combine the two requests and find some Bog Rosemary collected by a working class botanist. In our British collection I found a lovely sheet of specimens collected from Lindow Common in Wilmslow by Thomas Whitelegge in 1877.
I didn’t know much about Whitelegge but a quick look in ‘Desmond’ (Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturalists: Including Plant Collectors, Flower Painters and Garden Designers, Ray Desmond, 1977) revealed that Whitelegge (1850-1927) was indeed a workingman naturalist. The short entry showed that he was born in Stockport, was Secretary and President of the Ashton Linnean Botanical Society and that he moved to Australia in 1883 where he joined the staff of the Australian Museum in Sydney until 1908. Whitelegge became an authority on ferns and mosses and to top it all, he corresponded with Charles Darwin.
Andrea and I immediately started looking through our archives for any correspondence to or from Whitelegge. Meanwhile Leander had found a more detailed biography of Whitelegge in the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online. We discovered that he had been born into poverty to an illiterate brickmaker, leaving school at just 8 years of age. He went to work in a factory before becoming apprenticed to a hatter. We were then shocked to find that he broke his indentures and lived as a fugitive for 2 years on a farm in Hurstbrook, Lancashire. It was whilst working on this farm that Whitelegge developed his interest in natural history.
Andrea and I are both following some leads to see what else we can discover about Whitelegge. We will keep you posted of any news.